There have been moments in the past two days when I haven’t sneezed for two hours straight. One was writing an article and the other was watching Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman in the riveting series “The Undoing.” So somehow intense engagement seems to be some kind of antidote for this pesky cold.
But not for long. It keeps returning, often in groups of ten sneezes in a row. So it got me wondering why people sneeze. Here's what St. Google said:
Sneezing is your body’s way of removing irritants from your nose or throat. Part of your nose’s job is to clean the air you breathe, making sure it’s free of dirt and bacteria. In most cases, your nose traps this dirt and bacteria in mucous. Your stomach then digests the mucus, which neutralizes any potentially harmful invaders. Sometimes, however, dirt and debris can enter your nose and irritate the sensitive mucous membranes. When these membranes become irritated, it causes you to sneeze.
It then goes on to acknowledge other reasons like colds, flus, allergies, etc. That’s the science part.
Then there’s the mythology. The ancient Romans believed that when you sneezed you were expelling a part of your soul. So people began to say “bless you” to keep you alive and whole. During the plague, sneezing was one of the symptoms so Gregory 1 suggested the custom of saying “God bless you” in the hopes that this prayer would protect them from an otherwise certain death.
Is such blessing universal? Wikipedia notes that nothing is usually said in China, Japan or Korea, but all European cultures and some African and Middle Eastern ones have a customary response of blessing or wishing good health. Gesunheit in German, Salud in Spanish, prosit in Dutch, Naz Dravi in Czech, Shatam Jeevah in Hindi, Pele in Yoruban. And so on. (Ah, it is in times like these that I regret not having a music class to teach tomorrow. I can imagine a whole speech piece based on sneezes and multicultural responses to them.)
That’s today’s news. I’ve sneezed four times while writing this. And was tempted to create some metaphor of some kind of sneeze that clears out the irritable people in one’s life, but decided to let it go. Of course, if I went out into the world sneezing these days, I would certainly clear out all people and fast!
Oh, and sternutation? That’s the fancy word for sneezing. Save it for your next dinner party.